The Bodhran Maker by Maria Moynihan

“When I look at the sea, I always ask myself, ‘how can anybody not believe in God?” murmurs Malachy Kearns.

“When I look at the sea, I always ask myself, ‘how can anybody not believe in God?” murmurs Malachy Kearns. “Everything about the sea is divine. It has never been mastered by mankind. There’s no war damage to the sea. It is beyond majestic. If you take the sound of the sea, it’s kind of therapy. The smell is healing. And if you add in the sound of the seabirds calling, it is another live of beauty. Every morning, I look out at the sea and I say, ‘Good morning, Ireland! Good morning God!’ There’s always a heron down on the same spot on the shore, has been and will be. You can see eternity straight away.”

For a big man, Malachy Kearns has unexpectedly poetic, almost hypnotic turn of phrase. If you wanted to cobble a clumsily convenient methaphor together, you could compare his speech patterns to soothsayer rhythms that resonate from one of his bodhrans. Played with subtle skill, this tough goatskin drum should send its sound ‘straight to your gut, where the life centre is’.

Yet, when the Dublin-born Malachy quit his job with a Dutch engineering company to make Bodhran’s in the grounds of an ancient Franciscan monastery ‘at the end of the tarmac lane in Western Europe’ in Roundstone, Connemara, over 30 years ago, his concerned sister wondered if he would consider ‘discreet, psychiatric treatment’. There was a bit of madness in setting up here years ago, “Malachy acknowledges. “The phones were still on the ‘windy up’ system, so you had to boom a call, maybe wait three hours to get it through and then you’d ring somebody in New York and the person who answered the call would say, ‘he’s just popped out, can you call back in 10 minutes?”

But the lure of the sea, which first brought him to Connemara, proved too powerful to resist. But trad music had caught him at ‘soul level’ at sessions in his aunt’s bar, Rafter’s, in Sligo. A neighbour in Dublin, harp maker Joe Porter, taught him the rudiments of bodhran-making; a skill he fine-tuned with Listowel master Davy Gunn. He decided to take a bash at it ‘for a year or two’. “There’s a great gift in that I drifted into Bodhran making and moving west, not with a great plan,” says Malachy. “I don’t ever see bewilderment or confusion or pressure as being the end now. It can lead to a great, great place.”

Sticking to traditional techniques – goatskins are soaked in lime sulphide for seven to ten days before stretching – Malachy’s bodhran’s have found favour with musicians like Christy Moore who plays with his knuckles and thumb, sent pulses racing in Riverdance and even appeared in the famous ceili scene in Titanic after director James Cameron visited the workshop twice, driving sales at home and abroad. “When I see a finished Bodhran, I’m always thinking of where it is going and in my head I see it having a whole lively life, hopping, whether it is in New York or Kerry or Birmingham,” says Malachy. “ I can see the subtle veining in the skin. I see it as life. We put our heart and soul into it really.” Success however, did not come with casualties. The pressure led to the break-up of Malachy’s marriage to his wife of over 20 years, Anne a talented artist responsible for the Celtic designs on the Roundstone bodhran’s, and mother to his daughter Roma.

“I found it very hard,” says Malachy simply. “It would be worse in the winter; the loneliness and regret.” But once again, that ‘sense of bewilderment’ brought Malachy Kearns somewhere he never expected. At Christmas 2000, he was volunteering as Santa at a local centre for asylum seekers (“Santa Claus is a big fella like me!”) when he noticed a young Ghanian boy called Jason. “He was kind of lonely and lost, and I was too,” says Malachy. The child’s mother, Gifty, was in her room, still coming to terms with the upheaval of moving from the west of Africa to the west of Ireland. When she was eventually persuaded to join the party, she put on a brave face and her most colourful traditional attire. And that was that for Malachy.

“I fancied Gifty straight away, but I couldn’t say much because Santy in under obligation to Mrs. Claus,” he says. “So I had to find an excuse to go back another day.” The opportunity arose when the BBC children’s programme, The Tweenies, came to film at the Bodhan workshop. Malachy invited local families along, including Jason and his mother. They fell in love, ‘genuinely, slowly, not rushing into anything’ and married in 2005. Malachy describes his wife, who now runs the shop, as ‘a rare gift from God’, possessing the patience and calmness he feels he lacks; she speaks of his integrity and kindness.

The bodhran business has not been without its challenges in recent years; whereas in 2004, ‘anything that was €50 and would fit in a bag, you could sell easily’, not it is €5. Going part-guarantor for community marina for Roundstone that never never got off the ground has has its stresses too. Malachy is generous to a fault and you get the feeling that he has been hurt by people who have taken advantage of this in the past. Yet, for all that, Malachy says that the dream that brought him to the end of the last tarmac lane in Western Europe is finally coming true. And the call of the sea is more urgent than ever.

“I think I’ll have to work ‘till I’m a hundred, but I’m happy,” she says. “Jason has the school holidays and a he says is, “Daddy, are we going fishing for mackies today?” And they’re pulling out life jackets and rods and talking about flies like little expert fishermen. “I often say to Jason and his friends that there’s people in Frankfurt today who never same or smelt the sea, or never touched a boat or never ever heard of mackerel. And here we are, another day with bags and nets.”

‘The Bodhran Maker is taken from ‘Ireland’s Atlantic Shore, People and Places from Mizen to Malin. Published Collins Press and available from Amazon – click here to buy.

From Frommers Guide
– An article in Frommers by Malachy Kearns

Listen to any recording of Irish music and you’ll hear the unmistakable racing rolling rhythm of the bodhrán Ireland’s traditional drum.

With the world-wide success of the Riverdance show and the growing popularity of Irish music, this simple yet remarkable instrument is getting ever greater exposure. The bodhrán pronounced bow-rawn, from an Irish word that means “deaf” or “hurling” – is a one – sided drum that usually measures 18′ in diameter and 4″ in depth, and is one of a family of frame-style (as opposed to barrel- or cone-shaped) drums whose branches can be found in cultures all, over the world, from Native Americans and peoples in China,, Russia, Lapland, the Basque country, Mongolia, and all the Islamic countries to the kid flailing a tambourine in your local rock band. Art from long before the Roman empire depicts musicians playing this type of drum, and its playing style has developed according to the needs of different cultures, in Ireland, it’s played with a single short stick (known as a “beater” or “tipper”) One hand presses behind the skin to alter the timbre and pitch while the tipper hand hits the skin in a circular style that requires great wrist flexibility and gives the playing power and subtlety.

Quite possibly, the Irish bodhran originated as a skin tray used to carry freshly Cut turf from the bog to be used as fuel. From here, it evolved into a farm implement used for winnowing (seperating chaff from grain) through the simple mechanism of punching holes in the skin, Keep the skin intact, though, and instrument whose sound a hauntingly dry yet resonant, nimble yet deep and grounding sound – is deeply rooted in the hearts of Irish people and connects at gut level to the life center within us all.

On St. Stephen’s Day (December 26), groups of people with blackened faces and wearing outlandish costumes enact the “Wren Hunt” parading a captured wren from house to house while playing music especially the bodhran – and sin’ ging a ceremonial song. The bodhrán is also featured in Mummers plays and harvest festivals and nowadays Irish football supporters take their bodhrans to international matches-the secret weapon of the ancient Gael!

Recordings with beautiful bodhrán playing include Christy Moore’s “Live at the Point,” Johnny ” Ringo” McDonagh and Arcady’s “Mány Happy Returns,” Tommy Haye’s “An Ras,” and The Chieftains’ “Chieftains Live”

A tip for buying a good bodhran: There are many cheap imported split calf skin bodhrans of very poor quality floating around out there. A good quality, tough, 3 – year – old goatskin is the most important feature. Goat skin has unique stretch properties and holds its tension well for a lifetime if not abused. Quality goatskin has a deep, haunting sound that is very freeing to play, creating a “Bounceback” effect. It’s best if the skin is glued as well as tacked on the frame, especially for bodhrans going to hot clitnates.

-Malachy Kearns

Malachy Kearns (also known as “Malachy Bodhran is the world’s premier bodhran maker and has crafted instruments for the Chieftains, Christy Moore, Moore, and the Riverdance ensemble, among others He can be seen Hard at work every day at Roundstone Musical Instruments in Connemara.

Review by Des Kenny of Kenny’s Book Shop (Galway)

For those whose bent is traditional Irish music, look no further than the charming Wallup by malachy Bodhrán (Kearns) from Roundstone.

This slim volume is a wonderful stream of consciousness from a man totally bound up in the bodhrán business. His style is most definitely conversational but equally endearing for those with a fascination with the instrument. This means from Christy Moore down.

If the fireside is to remain a place for conversation then Malachy Bodhrán and his book “Wallup” are good company there. This book is not written, it is spoken and Malachy makes sure we know that from the beginning. Here is a man at his trade, which is making bodhráns and talking us through it. The conversations generally last about 30 minutes but they are filled with fact and fancy. This is a nugget for the lover of traditional music.

Here is a book your will certainly enjoy. It will open in your heart a place for bodhrán making. Where ever you play the bodhrán this book will bring you home. Brim full of stories, chat and humour and the lore of bodhráns

Written on the cover of “Wallup!” is “Malachy Bodhrán chats about the human and lore of Bodhrán Making”, and chats he certainly does. Reading this book is not the same as reading any other in that there is a feeling , if you will, that one is not reading but rather listening to the humerious yarns of a good storyteller. In the tradititional seanachaí style Malachy entices, the reader into a mystical world as he recounts what he believes is the former life of the materials he used in making his world famous bodhráns. Entwined in his tale of everyday life in the workshop is the mastery & mystery of bodhrán making. One does not need to be a lover of music to gain enjoyment from reading “Wallup!” But those who do have an appreciation for music will understand what Malachy means in his various descriptions about the bodhrán especially that of it being the backbone and heartbeat in traditional Irish music.

Reviewed by Martina Flynn

The pulse of Irish music – The Irish Times

When Dubliner Malachy Kearns became known as `Malachy Bodhrán’ he knew he had truly come home to Roundstone, Co Galway. Patricia O’Reilly met him.

“I watched Christy Moore play a bodhrán to a packed Point and there wasn’t a sound from the audience,” says Malachy Kearns. “Just a man and a bodhrán on stage. I knew then what he meant by its power. I also understood what traditional musicians were talking about when they described the bodhrán as the pulse of Irish music.”

Malachy doesn’t say that Christy’s bodhrán had been made by his own company, Roundstone Musical Instruments (RMI). Nor is he in a hurry to mention that it is his bodhráns that give Riverdance its distinctive percussive sound. “The bodhrán is a humble product and if I stay as humble I’ll be all right.”

A bulky man with a lived-in face and a philosophical outlook on life, he operates in a low-key way – a plausible mixture of traditional dreamer and commercial visionary.

Raised in Dublin and spending his school holidays with relations in Sligo, he was equally at home with and fascinated by the quiet strength of the country people and the immediacy and tension of city business. One of his teachers at CBS Monkstown told him: “There is a high road and a low road and a lot of haze in between.” For some years Malachy Kearns says he lived in that haze.

After taking a B.Com in UCD, he worked with the now defunct Clondalkin Paper Mills and afterwards as purchasing manager with an engineering consultancy firm. After leaving that job he tried to eke a living by selling harps for a friend and he realised a market niche existed for bodhráns.

With his wife Anne and daughter Roma, Malachy moved to Roundstone village in Co Galway to a workshop and house, in the shadow of a bell tower, sited in the grounds of a 16th-century Franciscan monastery, where in the summer seals and dolphins congregate at the outer walls.

“I was at the end of my mental and financial tether,” he says. “My only plus factors were Anne and Roma. Gradually I seemed to draw strength from my surroundings. I stopped drinking and was able to get the business off the ground.” When he became known within the community as “Malachy Bodhrán” he knew he had truly come home. “Here once you’re nicknamed, you’re in.”

This year RMI celebrates its 20th birthday. The company now includes a mail-order service, an instrument museum, a craftshop, a coffee shop, Malachy’s Leaf and a sales outlet, in Clifden. A second Malachy’s Leaf opens in Roundstone this month. It has also expanded into the manufacture of wooden flutes, tin whistles and Irish harps. Anne, an artist and also an expert on heraldry, is an integral part of the operation, decorating bodhráns with family crests, designs from the Book of Kells or other Celtic sources.

RMI currently employs 12 fulltime and during the summer six part-timers. Each year it makes an estimated 10,000 bodhráns, in large, small and miniature sizes, 70 per cent of which are exported to the US, Canada, the UK, France and Germany. Also catered for is the growing band of musicians who want tuneable bodhráns. On this Malachy has worked in close co-operation with Donal Lunney, whom he describes as being “the engine room” of traditional music, “always redirecting, but never destroying”.

Internationally the bodhrán business is on an upward curve, much of its bullish market due to the international popularity of Irish culture, such as Riverdance. The Kearns believe: “We’ve to be equally at home in the music, the gift and the souvenir markets.” They attend a variety of major world trade shows including the Los Angeles-based The Greatest Show on Planet Earth, generally regarded as a showpiece for world music at its most powerful where they are the only Irish exhibitors.

“I used to slip into worry,” explains Malachy, “but now I lean on the more positive aspects of life.” His favourite slogan which hangs in a predominant position in his office, reads: “Today is the tomorrow I worried about yesterday.” He gave up smoking last year and in June treated himself to a brand new black Volvo. “It’s the nature of human beings to move on inside themselves,” he remarks quietly.

He assures that he’s lazy rather than active. So lazy in fact that he gets out of bed in the morning by promising himself that he’ll only work for four hours. Usually he finds that the challenge of what he’s doing takes over and the hours slip by. “It’s very rewarding to do a job right.”

While the business has become computerised and employs graphic artists and calligraphers, the manufacturing process is still grassroots and that’s the way Malachy likes it. “The making of bodhráns brings you very close to nature and when played it is very freeing on the soul,” he says. “The whole involvement is a spiritual experience.”

The first Thursday in each month is skin day, when up to 40 people supply RMI with goatskin. The skins, treated in hydrated lime mixed with secret ingredients, are soaked for seven to ten days in a solution of lime sulphide which softens, de-hairs and dissolves fatty tissue. The skin is stretched before being glued onto the steamed beech hoop and then tacked on to prevent ripping. “Goatskins are unique for their stretching properties, hold their tension for a life time and have a deep haunting tone,” says Malachy.

The beech for the frames is bought from local timber yards and is steamed, bended and glued. The workshop houses in the region of £70,000 worth of equipment including moulds for steaming the beech which Malachy designed and manufactured himself.

Origins are obscure
The bodhrán, one of Ireland’s oldest products, is a one-sided framed drum, traditionally made from goat-skin and stretched over an 18-inch diameter beech frame. Literally translated from Gaelic it means “deaf” or “haunting”. Theories abound about its origins. Some believe it originated in Africa and came to Ireland by way of Spain; others insist it was brought to Ireland from Central Asia by Celtic migrants. That it was devised by canny Kerrymen to push up the price of goatskins isn’t to be taken seriously.

The current consensus of opinion is that it originated in Ireland and evolved from a work implement to its present musical status. Though it is argued that given our history, the bodhrán could also have had a role in warfare. Certainly it was used as a tray for drawing turf on the bogs and it bears a great resemblance to the trays used on farms for centuries for separating chaff from grain. It also appeared in mummers’ plays and harvest festivals, adding credence to its agricultural background. Its musical popularity started in the late 1950s around the heyday of its close relative, the tambourine, whose use is now more or less defunct. The bodhrán owes its place in the traditional music of today mainly due to the work of the late Sean O’Riada and Ceoltoiri Cualann.

Counties Galway and Mayo Shopping

The Bodhrán is an ancient Irish one-sided frame drum

Malachy Kearns of Roundstone Musical Instruments (Tel: 095-35875) and Fax:095 359800, works in the ancient Franciscian monastery IDA Craft Centre in Roundstone. The bell tower and outer walls of this 16th century monks home and local school are still there, and in the summer seals and dolphins gather at its outer walls near the workshop .Malachy is a master craftsman, and the only full time bodhrán maker in the World. The Bodhrán is an ancient Irish one-sided frame drum, and for the best results, it is vital to have the quality goatskin Malachy uses. While you wait his wife ,Anne, a Celtic Artist, can decorate the skin with Celtic designs, initials family crests or any design you request in old Gaelic script Malachy’s workshop also makes wooden flutes (ebony), tin whistles, and harps, and he has an excellent mail order service. The workshop/craft shop and Folk museum are open daily from May to October from to 6.30pm, Monday through Friday other months. This is one of my personal favorite stops in Connemara. The Kearns also have a shop on the Mail Street in Clifden (Tel: 095 21516), open daily from 9am to 7pm from April through to October, Monday through Saturday in winter.

AN EXTRACT TAKEN FROM “Ireland’s Traditional Crafts.”
David Shaw-Smith, Thames and Hudson.

The origin of the frame drum known as the bodhrán is obscure.

The origin of the frame drum known as the bodhrán is obscure. It is thought to date from pagan times, but in more recent years it has become associated with the ‘wren boys an old custom where by on St. Stephen’s Day a wren is captured and paraded from house to house, accompanied by music.

Malachy Kearns, who lives and works in Roundstone, Co. Galway, is respected as a fine bodhrán maker. The most favoured and common skins he uses are goat and deer; greyhound and donkey hides are also good. The skins are cured in hydrated lime mixed with ingredients that are the close secret of every bodhrán maker; cured thus, they will keep indefinitely. They are then soaked for seven to ten days in a solution of lime sulphide, which softens the skin and partially dissolves the fatty tissue so that fat acid hair can be easily removed with a scraper.

After the skin has been stretched on a frame for two to three days and scraped further, a portion of it is removed and tacked under tension onto the beech wood frame of the bodhrán using brass upholstery nails. As an added precaution it is also glued. Next the cross-pieces are fitted. The beater can be turned from holly, oak, beech and even larch.

In the hands of a skilled player it can be a subtle and exciting instrument. The skin is struck in a variety of ways, even using the heel of the hand and fingers, the hand support the instrument tucked in behind the cross piece, varies the colour and intensity of the sound pressing oil the skin. The side of ‘the beater is also used to good effect on the wooden rim.

Ireland’s Master Bodhran Maker

Roundstone Musical Instruments is the studio and shop of renowned bodhrán maker Malachy Kearns, or Malachy Bodhrán as he is fondly know. The Bodhrán is one of the oldest Irish musical instruments, a one sided hand held drum that is made through traditional methods using treated goat’s skin stretched onto a Birch frame. Colourful designs are hand painted onto the bodhrán including by request family crests.

Malachy has handmade all of the bodhráns used in Riverdance over the past 25 years.

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